Requirements for Accessible PDF part four: Proper Conversion Process

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In the first three parts of this series, we've looked at ways through which content can be optimized directly in the authoring source document, so accessibility is built right in from the very beginning. We've argued why it was preferable to build accessibility right in, rather than waiting until the document had been converted from an authoring source to bolt it on the resulting PDF.

But no matter how hard authors work at integrating accessibility best practices in their source documents, all of these efforts can be put to waste in a matter of seconds when uninformed authors use lame conversion processes to generate their PDFs. Maybe this has a lot to do with the reasons why PDF has been getting such a bad reputation when it comes to accessible content over the past few years...

There are many quick and dirty methods through which a Word file can be turned into PDF, and most tools out there will allow authors to do just that. But as you could guess, the majority of these methods or tools yield very poor accessibility results.

One of the worst ways to create a PDF is using the default print options available in most software packages; a method that is arguably used by a lot of tools out there, as well as most people who simply want to create their PDF document and be done with it. Simply put, "printing to PDF" is not a recommended way to convert a Word document to PDF format because by doing so, all accessibility features integrated into the Word document are inherently stripped out in the process, resulting in a "untagged" PDF - a PDF that has no mark up to structure its content.

And really, what would be the point of putting all sorts of accessibility efforts in, if it was only to lose them all at the very last minute, due to a bad or uneducated conversion process? Untagged documents are wiped clean of any accessibility efforts, which in turn, means these efforts need to be provided all over again in Adobe Acrobat Pro. So obviously, you should always avoid printing to PDF at all costs.

The truth is, the appropriate method for converting Microsoft Word files to PDF depends largely on the version of Microsoft Office you have installed. For conciseness, we will concentrate mostly on the options available in Microsoft Word 2010, but we will also quickly go over ways it can be achieved using Word 2007 and Word 2000-2003 before we wrap this post up.

Microsoft Word 2010

There are two ways available in Office 2010 to create tagged PDF files: 1) natively or 2) with the Adobe add-in called PDFMaker. This add-in is available to those who have Adobe Acrobat installed. Otherwise, the native method can be used. Both are described below.

Converting to PDF using Word and PDFMaker

The most reliable way to convert a Word document to PDF format is to use the PDFMaker add-in, which is automatically installed in Office 2010 when Acrobat Pro is installed. Using PDFMaker ensures all accessibility features from the Word document are preserved through the conversion process to PDF, including tagged elements.

However, before first converting a Word document to PDF format, it is highly recommended that you check the PDF conversion settings for accessibility. Once set, these settings will remain in effect until changed. So unless modifications are applied, these settings can be set only once and be reliably used afterwards.

To view or change the PDFMaker conversion settings, begin by going to the Acrobat tab in the Create Adobe PDF group and click on the Preferences button. This will open the Acrobat PDF Maker dialog box. From there, complete the following steps:

  1. Selecting the Settings tab, go under Application Settings and make sure the "Create Bookmarks", "Add Links" and "Enable Accessibility and Reflow with Tagged Adobe PDF" options are checked. The "Attach Source File" option can remain unchecked.
  2. Next, moving to the Security tab, make sure the Permissions options are not checked. Password Security will later be applicable in Adobe Acrobat Pro. If, for some reason, this option needs to be checked prior to PDF conversion, make sure that at least the Enable Text Access for Screen Reader Devices for the Visually Impaired option is checked.
  3. On the Word tab, under Word Features, make sure the "Convert Footnote and endnote links" option is selected. The other two options can remain unchecked.
  4. Finally, on the Bookmarks tab, make sure the "Convert Word Headings to Bookmarks" option is selected as well. The other two options can also remain unchecked.

Once these settings have been selected, click on the OK button to confirm. PDFMaker is now ready to properly manage your PDF conversion processes. It's now time to create the PDF document!

  1. Going back to the Acrobat tab in the Create Adobe PDF group, click on the Create PDF button. You can also simply go to the File tab and select Save as Adobe PDF from the list of format options. Both options will open the Save Adobe PDF File As dialog box.
  2. You will then be asked to name the file and save it to your hard drive as you normally would, using a .pdf extension and clicking the Save button.
  3. The Acrobat PDFMaker dialog box will open as the file is being converted to PDF format. Once the conversion process is completed, the newly created file will open in Acrobat Pro. And voilà! The resulting PDF should be tagged, and contain most, if not all, accessibility features that were initially built in.

For more information on the conversion process, WebAIM offers a nice set of guidelines for properly converting a Word document to PDF format in their PDF Accessibility Tutorial: http://webaim.org/techniques/acrobat/converting.

Converting to PDF Natively using Word

If you do not have Acrobat Pro installed on your computer, you can convert a Word file to PDF natively by selecting File » Save As and select PDF under Save as type. Before you save the file, select Options and ensure that the "Document structure tags for accessibility" option is selected. Again, the resulting PDF should be tagged, and contain most, if not all, accessibility features that were initially built in. Again, as it was the case with the other method previously explained, your mileage may vary.

Office 2007

Office 2007 users must have either Adobe Acrobat or the Microsoft PDF add-in installed. The Adobe add-in allows you to convert to PDF by clicking the Office Button and selecting Save As » Adobe PDF, or by selecting Create PDF on the Acrobat ribbon. A tagged PDF document should be created by default. You can verify the accessibility setting by selecting Adobe PDF conversion options. The Create Accessible (Tagged) PDF file option should be selected.

A free Save as PDF Add-in is available for Word 2007. Click the Office Button and select Save As » PDF. Select Options before saving to ensure the "Document structure tags for accessibility" option is checked.  Note however, that this method is not as good as the Adobe add-in at tagging content. You should always verify the accessibility of the resulting PDF with Acrobat Pro.

Office 2000-2003

Office 2000-20003 users must have Acrobat installed, as well as the add-in, which is installed by default in Microsoft Office when you install Adobe Acrobat. With the add-in you can convert Office files to PDF without opening Acrobat. This add-in also installs an Adobe PDF menu, which should appear in the Menu bar. To convert a Word Document to PDF, Select Adobe PDF » Convert to Adobe PDF. To verify that accessibility features are enabled, go to Adobe PDF » Change Conversion Settings and ensure the "Enable Accessibility and Reflow with tagged Adobe PDF" option is selected.

So, that's about as simple as it gets. When most accessibility efforts are put in the source document and the conversion process to PDF is handled in one of the ways presented above, the resulting documents should be in great shape from an accessibility standpoint. Now fire up those tools and let's play!

This blog post concludes our series on PDF Accessibility. The previous posts can be found here:

We hope you enjoyed this last part of our series on PDF Accessibility Requirements. Do you feel these best practices were relevant in helping you get started on the right track with PDF accessibility? Are there other specific elements you would have hoped for us to cover? Don't hesitate to leave a comment so we can keep this conversation going.

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About 

Denis Boudreau is a Principal Web Accessibility Consultant, Strategist and Trainer at Deque. He's a member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) in the Education and Outreach Working Group, advocating social inclusion on the Web. Denis runs the a11yMTL monthly meetings and annual conference in Montreal, and is obsessed with UX and digital inclusion. He's especially passionate about design that's both engaging and accessible to everyone.

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